“Would you like to see my museum?”
He craned his head back over his shoulder to indicate the little passageway turning off from the stairs. “Where I live. Would you like to see it?”
She hesitated. His dark eyes glinted at her hopefully, and he swayed slightly where he sat, with his arms once again hanging between his knees, left hand tightly clasped around right wrist. Part of her said that it was getting later and later, that this entire exchange was ill-advised for any number of reasons, and that she ought to take this moment to excuse herself; but it was a small, dry voice. The rest of her didn’t even have words; it simply wanted to see where the night would keep going.
“I would like to see that, yes,” she said, and was rewarded with the sight of his face creasing with a deeply warm smile.
She was startled when he pushed himself up the stairs without another word, using his legs alone, and then set off down the hallway in the same fashion, pushing himself backwards with short, deliberate thrusts of his legs. She rose and turned to follow him down the oak-paneled hallway. A little way down the passage, she saw a high-backed wheelchair of wood and wicker, backed against one wall. He positioned himself in front of it and then turned to her with a measuring look. “My chariot awaits. Won’t you help me up, my dear Hippolyta?”
At her skeptical look, he said hurriedly, “It won’t take much strength from you, just balance. I know this is an imposition, but to be frank, it will be much less – ugly than if I try by myself.”
She went to him, more than a little trepidatious, but moved by his expression of pride.
“You’ll need to put your hands under my arms,” he said, “yes, like that – and then rise when I rise. You won’t need to take my weight for more than a moment. Ready? Good – I’m going –”
He pressed himself upwards. His legs shook constantly, and his arms twisted loosely at his sides, but it was true that he was able to take his full weight on his feet. It was simply that he had no balance whatsoever, she realized: her hands were there to keep him from pulling himself off center, to push back when his torso jerked to one side. Like this, she was able to help him into his chair with fair speed.
“Thank you,” he said as he settled himself. His eyes sought hers, but she glanced back deliberately over her shoulder. “That bottle –” she said, and turned back to retrieve it. Behind her, she could hear a small squeak from one wheel as he set off down the hallway.
She came up behind him as he exited the hallway into a long, high-ceilinged gallery: somewhat narrow, but wonderfully lofty. The left-hand wall was lined with bookshelves, while the right was a rank of mullioned windows stretching almost the entire height of the wall, showing the blue-black night. The bookshelves were untidily filled to about the height of Michael’s head; a few curious objects were scattered among the higher shelves. A low, round, heavy table sat in the far corner of the gallery, against the windows, and was overspread with more books, most of them open.
She found that she was smiling. Michael had come to a stop a little way ahead of her, pushing his chair around with one foot until he faced her again. “It must be lovely in the daytime,” she said, “with all the light.
“It is.” There was a note of pride in his voice.
She walked closer to one of the windows, peering through the reflection of the lights. Outside she could see a stone parapet and the darkness of the grounds below. The parapet was ornamental, she realized; there was no balcony outside. Had someone, she wondered, been determined that there be no chance for the occupant of this gallery to be visible from the outside?
She turned back; Michael had made his way to the table and was looking at one of the books there, his head slowly twisting on his neck with that characteristic motion. She went to join him, setting down the champagne bottle off to one side. “The Decameron,” he said brightly to her, “always good company.”
She gazed down. “Yes, plague stories,” she said absently, “stories to divert…”
“The confined,” he suggested helpfully.
She refrained from responding. The copy was open to the story of Martellino, and looked very old – leather-bound, with heavy, brown-edged pages. It showed signs of rough handling, with pages crumpled or even hanging askew. The same was true of all the other books piled on the table; she thought of his shaking hands. Slowly she ran one of her own fingers over the spines of a haphazard stack.
“Mr. Byrne,” she said carefully. He looked at her quizzically. “I have an impertinent question.”
“Well, you’ve roused my curiosity. What is it?”
“Isn’t it cruel,” she said, “for your family to… keep you alone, and at the top of a flight of stairs?”
He rocked back in his chair and looked at her. An expression of something like contempt flickered over his face, only for an instant, but seeing it, she felt a sharp twist of emotion in her stomach: regret, shame, a defensive thrust of her own pride. She forced herself to look at him squarely, following the motions of his unsteady head, examining his sharp eyes, the lines on either side of his mouth.
“Miss De Vries,” he said finally, “you mean well, I’m sure, but are you aware that the most likely alternative would be my placement in an institution?”
Her stomach sank. “I’m sorry,” she said very softly, barely able to hold his gaze now. “I should have thought.”
“Very likely. But I certainly imagine you wouldn’t be aware,” he continued inexorably, “that California has, very recently, approved a succession of laws allowing the sterilization of many inhabitants of such institutions. For the future betterment of the human race. I don’t think my own mother even knows that I know that.”
She stared away to one side, silent. Her face had gone utterly cold. She felt her skin creeping with slow horror.
“My parents took a sizable risk,” he continued coolly, “in choosing to care for me at home. For years they had no idea whether I would be able to think, or walk, or speak. Obviously some of those things turned out better than others. Nonetheless. Neither my father nor my mother are sentimental people. We can speculate as to their reasons for keeping me at home; I certainly have; we might conclude it was pride more than anything else, pride in their wealth. Still, I must choose to feel gratitude for my circumstances. For my considerable advantages. Anything else would drive me mad.”
She could feel his gaze on her, heavily; she lifted her face to meet it. “I’m sorry,” she said again, “for my presumptuousness.” She felt very young.
“Well, anyway,” he said, with that studied lightness she had detected before, jerking his arms about in his lap as if to clear the air, “I’m not so very alone here. The servants are wonderful gossips. And Mother comes to see me every day. And Owen more frequently than you might expect.” That was the youngest brother; it was a pleasant surprise to hear…
“You’re still thinking a great many thoughts – rebellious thoughts,” he remarked, with something like the contemptuous look he had shown before, but affectionate this time. His head was listing to one side, giving him an incidentally rakish look. “You’re thinking, for example, that my family ought to be more courageous about my situation; to not treat me as something to be ashamed of; to use their position to force better treatment… Et cetera. How old are you, Miss De Vries?”
“You don’t need to rub it in,” she said evenly. “But I’m twenty-two.”
“That makes me,” he said, “more than ten years older than you are,” and she tried not to show her surprise. “I’ve had all that time, and more, to think the same thoughts that you are right now. At present, I find it more restful not to take up that train anymore.”
She could find nothing to say, then. She continued watching him, his body’s restless involuntary rearrangements, the way the fingers of his right hand seemed to tremble open and closed around nothing. She had a sudden notion of being in a garden on a cold spring day, of watching the wind push a flower’s petals open and then shut again.
He gave her that affectionate look again; this time it was less edged. “And what are you thinking now?”
“Do you remember you asked me,” she said slowly, “why I was embarrassed to talk about my aunt’s museum?”
“Yes,” he said curiously.
“I was embarrassed,” she said, running her hand back and forth along the edge of the book-laden table, “because ever since I was twelve, I’ve had a fear that I wasn’t real. I wasn’t real, none of the words I said, nothing I did was real. Before you give me another of your looks – I know that isn’t a new idea. But it felt very real to me, if that isn’t a paradox. I started to look around me for people who seemed to be real, so they could show me how. Pretty soon I realized there were precious few. But my aunt was one of them, of course. But she was so very her own person that I couldn’t see my own way to being that way, myself – I thought that I could only end up like that, if you see what I mean.
“Still, the more I worked with her… The more I work with her, the more we plan, the more I have the sense that this could be the first real thing that I do, this making a museum. Making a place where people can go and see beauty, see things they haven’t seen before, and think about places they haven’t been before, and the people who live there. A place where people can be still.” She shrugged. “Probably it’s silly, but it’s what I’ve been thinking, more and more. – Isn’t it dreadful what being rich does to one’s character? Or at least mine.” She tried to put on a careless smile, but faltered when she saw how genuinely he was, in fact, smiling at her just then.
She forced herself onward. “Anyway, I’ve gone on about all of this in order to explain: I’m confident that you’re the only real person I’ve met this whole time, since coming west. And I truly am sorry for my thoughtlessness about… your situation. It’s just hard… meeting you, and then not wanting better for you.”
“Why,” he said, very softly, “thank you.”
In the silence that followed, she crossed the few steps that separated them. She reached out to take his hands; at her touch, his left hand unclenched its grip around his right wrist, so that she could take each hand separately. It hadn’t been deliberate, she realized in another moment: once again his whole body was thrusting itself into a strange posture, as it had when he had been startled by the drunken revelers, back in the hall. His hands jerked roughly at her grasp as his shoulders wrenched to one side, and she could hear his breath coming quickly. His eyes had widened with dismay, and his cheeks were flushed. But she held on tightly, feeling the warmth of his hands through her gloves, and their wiry, uncoordinated strength.
Gradually his body quieted, slackened. He looked up at her disbelievingly. She leaned in closer. “Would you like to…?” she said quietly.
“Yes,” he said, and she bent down to kiss him.
He breathed out tremblingly when they parted. His eyes flickered back and forth over her face, so bright that they looked liquid. Again she could hear his breath coming fast. Gently she released his hands, trying to lay them to rest in his lap.
“Where,” she whispered, “is your bedroom?”
“Come,” he said. He put one foot out to begin to turn himself away from the table. Then he bit out half of an exclamation as his body buckled in on itself again, his torso collapsing down and to one side, one of his knees lifting sharply off the ground.
“God!” he said sharply when he was able to unfold himself again. His face was tight with anger. “You had better push me,” he said tightly to her, “unless you are, reasonably, having second thoughts about this.”
In answer, she moved around to put her hands on the handlebars of his chair and began pushing him out of the gallery. Beyond, there was a short passageway, which opened out again into a smaller, square room filled with a startling profusion of potted plants; briefly, delightedly, she perceived that in one corner there stood a tall cage with a few small birds sleeping inside. Beyond that there was another passageway, ending in an open door; to their left there was another door, closed. “The one ahead?” she asked him, bending to whisper directly into his ear.
“Yes,” he said; his voice still sounded thick, as if he were forcing it out. His head was lolling towards his chest; she pushed him onward.
His bedroom was large and noticeably warm; a four-poster bed commanded the left-hand wall. To one corner stood a twin of the round table in the gallery, with only slightly fewer books on it. Along the wall opposite the bed was a low dresser bearing a broad tray packed with medicine-bottles, and a basket holding an assortment of what looked like leather bands or straps and metal instruments. She felt his discomfort as soon as he saw her noticing those, and turned her gaze away again swiftly. She moved to close the door; to her mild surprise there was a key in the lock on the inside. She turned it with both satisfaction and something close to fear. She turned to see him looking up at her from his wheelchair with a startlingly similar expression.
“Well,” she breathed. With impatient speed, she stripped her long black gloves from each hand and dropped them to one side. Again she stepped forward and reached out for him– her hands might have been trembling – but this time she moved to cup his face. She felt the jolt of reaction run through him; his eyes closed as the tremors traveled his body. Slowly she ran her fingers over his face, feeling the pleasant scrape of stubble, tracing the lines on either side of his mouth, the contours of his parted lips. Yes, her hands were trembling. Both their breaths were coming fast. She bent to kiss him again and again.
When she opened her eyes again, she was amazed to see tears standing in his eyes. “Don’t do that,” she said, laughing out of alarm or embarrassment. She reached out with her thumbs and quickly wiped the tears away; then let one of her thumbs slide down again to rest by the corner of his lovely wide mouth.
“Sorry,” he said, “I’ll try not to.” He was laughing too, caught up in the same absurd emotional state. His head dropped to one side, his shoulders slumping. “What shall we do about all this?” he said, more softly, gesturing vaguely with his linked arms.
She couldn’t think through everything his question could have meant; she answered with willful ambiguity: “In a moment, I’ll help you… But will you move to the foot of your bed?” Watching her curiously, he did, pulling himself forward in his chair. At the same time, she moved to the opposite wall, before the dresser, taking deliberate, backward steps. She paused before the dresser, smoothing her hands over the fabric at her hips; then she twisted and began to undo, one by one, the side closures of her gown, the long fitted column of finely pleated black silk with crystals at the bodice. She pretended to ignore him watching her, the sheer weight of his gaze on her, the constant rustling and occasional creak of the wooden chair as his body shifted.
She slipped the gown off her shoulders, let it slither heavily to the floor, abstractedly enjoying the cool passage of the fabric. She heard him let out a long breath. She stood in her black slip, her sheer stockings. She allowed herself to look up at him again, waiting there across the room. The desire in his eyes was so bright and fierce that she almost took a step back, but she held herself, poised, looking back at him almost challengingly. His body convulsed; his right hand groped helplessly, trying to escape from the grasp of his other hand.
Swiftly she went to him then; she knelt and reached out to undo his tie, his shirt, pretending, with a strange secret pleasure, to ignore it as his linked hands brushed or pushed with a kind of desperate randomness across her face, her neck, her shoulders – except that once she lowered her head to kiss his knuckles in passing. She heard his sharp intake of breath.
“Let go,” she said eventually, tugging gently at his hands; when he released his clasp, she pulled him forward slightly so that she could guide each of his arms out of its sleeve, pull the shirt away.
He was so thin; hardly more than just bone and muscle. Fine dark curling hair ran down his chest; she put her hand to the place where the line disappeared into the waistband of his trousers, then ran it back up, watching with a strange mixture of satisfaction and dismay as he convulsed again in reaction, his head straining back, the cords in his neck standing out. “Is this all right?” she whispered hastily.
He forced his head back up. “Yes. Yes.” She could see sweat on his brow.
“It doesn’t hurt you – when your body moves like that?”
“Only sometimes. Rarely.”
She wasn’t sure whether to believe him, but was distracted when he abruptly brought his arms down on either side of his face, fumbling until he could once again link his arms together, so that he was, in his way, holding her. Like this, he pulled her closer to him. She was smiling broadly with delight. It was all strange, so strange, and yet so intimate, almost unbearably so; it was like nothing she had ever known before. This time, he kissed her, rough, clumsy, urgent.
He leaned back again. His eyes were searching her face almost frantically, as if waiting for a reaction that was not forthcoming. His arms were warm on her shoulders. “How can you want me?” he said finally, his voice breaking. “How can you?”
She reached up and took his face again. “I already told you,” she said softly. Then she reached back and drew his arms over her head again so that she could grasp each of his curled, trembling hands before her and, with them, stroke her cheeks, her neck, run them down her waist… She slipped one inside her undergarments to stroke around one of her breasts; he moaned, and the sound stirred her deeply. She left the hand there for another moment, then drew it out, clasped the two hands together again so that he could steady himself. “Let’s go,” she said, smiling.
He grinned back at her in answer, his eyes glinting. With his feet he pulled himself to one corner of the bed, where he wrapped his arms around the bedpost, and then, to her great surprise, thrust or pulled himself up to standing this way. His knees shook, as before, but he took one unsteady step to the side, and then another, so that he could pivot and then let himself fall back onto the bed. From there, he rapidly pushed himself back with his legs until he rested against the headboard, where he resumed watching her, grinning at her surprise.
Left at the foot of the bed, she shed her undergarments with almost vengeful speed and leapt up onto the bed on all fours, crawling toward him so rapidly that he laughed and shrank back, perhaps not entirely in jest. “A wild nymph,” he murmured as she approached, his eyes wide; she put her hands to his chest and ran them down its length again, feeling the thin hard muscle, the ridges of his ribs and hipbones. She kissed him hard, seizing the back of his head with a ferocity that startled even herself. She moved her lips down to his neck and kissed, then bit there. Again he moaned.
She pressed her hands against his shoulders, gently holding him steady against the headboard, then slowly slid her hand down his arms until, for the time, she could interlace her fingers with his. Silent, looking down at nothing in particular, she felt the play of the muscles in her hands against hers, the sudden jerks and contractions. His right arm jolted away; gently she bore down on that hand until it lay quivering against the coverlet again. She listened to their breathing.
“Does it disappoint you,” she whispered suddenly, “that I’m so forward? – If this isn’t right…”
There had been something in his eyes, as he had watched her approaching.
She looked up again now. His lips were compressed, and his dark, angular eyebrows were drawn together with disquiet.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. It may be a lot to ask me… anything of what I’m thinking just now. None of this feels terribly real.” A trace of his theatrical cadence returned at the end of the phrase, like a mechanism reestablishing itself.
“I feel the same,” she said, still whispering, watching his face keenly. “But are you sure this is right?”
“Please don’t ask me such a difficult question when we’re already in… this position,” he said, his face twisting.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry. I just don’t want to disappoint you.”
“I can’t imagine you could ever disappoint me,” he said. Was there already a chilly premonition in the phrase?
She was breathing quickly. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Don’t say that. You’re the only one here who has the least idea of how things should proceed at all.”
She pushed out an uncomfortable laugh. In the silence that followed, he leaned forward shakily and sought her lips again, his head twisting through space until she had to give in and close the gap.
When she opened her eyes again, she found him meeting her gaze with disquieting intensity. She felt it like a little flame moving over her skin.
Silently she released his hands, and slowly moved hers down to his waistband; she undid his trousers as he shivered under her touch, pushed them down his hips and off; his legs trembled tensely. Above, his arms were writhing wildly against the bed, through the air, and it roused her fear again: what if he was in a kind of panic… But no – when she looked up again, though his face showed the strain of trying to contain his body’s movements, his eyes begged her to go onwards.
She smoothed one hand down one of his legs, heard his harsh exhalation of breath. Swiftly she swung one leg over his body – and then simply lay down along the full length of his body, front to front, pressing her cheek to his chest, hearing his heartbeat, wrapping her legs around his, stretching out her arms to grasp his wrists. Feeling below her all the warmth of his bare skin, his hardness. He moaned, and the sound hummed through her.
For long moments she lay like this, just wanting to feel him, and feeling him, feeling every motion of his wayward body, smelling the clean scent of his skin; within her she nursed the ache to be touched more deeply.
Slowly, she sat up, straddling him, drawing his hands closer to her. He had sunk back against the pillows, and his eyes were glazed, heavy-lidded with desire. His body had grown lax, she realized dimly, the confusion of its movements slower, as if he were underwater. Once again she lifted his hands to her, and this time she traced all the contours of her body with them, her small breasts, the dimple of her navel, her full hips and rounded thighs, an anklebone, the arch of one foot. He gazed at her, lips parted, a tremor running through his frame every now and then.
Finally, she trailed his left hand around one hip and drew it towards the meeting of her thighs; with her thumb she extended two of his fingers and pushed them until she knew he could feel her wetness. She inhaled deeply, pleasure flooding up her body at his touch. His body jolted; his head fell to the one side on the pillow. She did it again, and this time she released his other hand so that she could reach to stroke him, too. His moan shook her to her core.
The moments of touch that followed were torturously long, dream-like in their confusion; at every moment she felt as though one or the other of them would shatter. There was a kind of delicious strain in being required to control not only her own motions, but his – to orchestrate both their pleasure; abstractedly she paused to watch once as his untethered right arm flailed on top of the coverlet, until he succeeded in thrusting it below one of the pillows under his head. Devilishly, she almost spoiled it by twisting her grasp upon him then, so that he cried out, very softly, and his arm thrashed under the pillow.
The pleasure mounted in her, and mounted: touching him, hearing him, watching his own pleasure transform that lean, elegant, ironic face.
Finally she could bear it no more: she sank down upon him and frantically rubbed her slickness all against his length, pushing closer and closer, stretching to kiss his lips, his jaw as she did so. Cautious even now, she did not take him into herself, but the contact, the heat, his hardness, his arrhythmic thrusts up against her, were all exquisite. Her awareness shuttered down into a kind of silent explosion, and then she was gasping over him as the waves of pleasure pushed through her over and over again. Below her, she was dimly aware that he had reached his own crisis, jolting against her, sending heat across her belly, and the sound of his same, soft cry sent another stab of unbearable pleasure through her.
The room stilled. She lay upon him, tightly clasping his left hand, whose fingers stirred gently against her grasp even now.
She moved so that she could nestle her face more comfortably in the crook of his neck. The closeness of his skin, his face… Sleepily she pressed forward to kiss his cheek. He made a small sound, and she opened her eyes briefly to see him staring up at the ceiling, blinking. His body was so quiet now: still shifting often, yes, but the motions were slow, gentle; minor tremors rather than the sudden jolts and contortions of before. She relaxed against him, bathed in warmth, pleasure.
She became aware that he was tugging carefully at her hand. She opened her eyes again, loosening the fingers that had still held his, and watched from the corner of her eye as he haltingly lifted first his left, then his right hand – the right hand, which could not be controlled before – and brought them to rest in her hair.
“There,” he breathed out, and the look of wonder in his eyes was so great that she had to close hers again, pulling herself tighter against him.
They sank into darkness together. Her last perception was that, beyond the sound of his pulse and his breath, she could hear a clock ticking softly somewhere in the room.
Back to part I
On to part III